“At the time,” she added, “it was thought that many of these children died of low body temperature, because that’s part of malnutrition. We used to keep them warm, but she taught us that if you got enough calories into these kids early enough, you can combat hypothermia.”

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Dr. Coady in 2017. “For some of us, like Davida,” a colleague said, public health “is a spiritual calling.”CreditToni Clark

Dr. Coady returned to Biafra briefly in late 1969. But with the war zone closing in on her group, she fled to Gabon, where she told reporters that the situation in Biafra had grown so desperate, there could be a million deaths from malnutrition within two weeks.

Back in the United States, she was asked to testify before the Senate on Biafran relief and was invited to meet Henry A. Kissinger, then President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, and Elliot Richardson, the under secretary of state.

In her autobiography, “The Greatest Good,” published this year, Dr. Coady wrote that Mr. Richardson showed her a cable, written by an officer of the United States Agency for International Development, that concluded that there was no starvation in Biafra because there were no bodies in the streets or vultures in the air and the children were fat.

“No bodies in the street?” she wrote, recalling her anger. “Biafrans bury people immediately. No vultures in the air? If there are no bodies in the street there are no vultures in the air. Fat? God, they were all swollen with famine edema.”

Mr. Richardson was angry at the officer’s ignorance, she wrote, and asked her to go back to Nigeria to document the famine. But after she arrived, she learned she had been identified to the Nigerian Red Cross as a Biafran sympathizer. Fearing for her safety, she left the country.

When she headed to India a few years later to work with a smallpox-eradication team sent by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the goal was to find every remaining case of the disease and immunize everybody around each infected person. Despite some resistance in India, their efforts succeeded.

“It was astounding to be part of this effort,” she wrote, “and watch the maps as the disease disappeared.”

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